Old faithful settles into a new niche
Cinderella and workhorse were favourite clichés to describe the role of chenin blanc in the local wine industry of olden days. Well, it is a good few years since the horse has come to the ball and it is great to have her.
Although the quality of chenin blancs has undoubtedly improved (as well as being sometimes pushed too far with excessive ripeness, sugar and oak), quantity has fallen drastically.
Chenin blanc used to occupy a third of the Cape vineyard, but is now at little more than 18%.
But no other variety has as large a proportion of old vines—many 40 years old at least—giving low crops, the intensity and finesse of which wine-lovers should happily pay a premium for and, incidentally, help to save such vineyards from ruthless, axe-wielding accountants.
Up and up
If the top end of chenin blanc production offers glory, the lower end offers real value. For less than R30 you can find decently made, fresh and fruity chenin blancs from the co-ops and former co-ops (Perdeberg, Boland, Swartland and Riebeek, for example) that are generally better and more interesting than anything else at the price.
From there it is only up. The quality ladder is neatly illustrated by four wines from one of the leading producers of good chenin blanc, the Stellenbosch-based Winery of Good Hope. It is a cheerful and appropriate name for a winery that is building its reputation by delivering on quality throughout its large range and through sincere ethical practices—although, because it buys in many grapes, it can ensure good working conditions only for its own winery and office staff.
Managing director Alex Dale told me what his lowest-paid cellar worker earned and it was something like three times the minimum legal wage—a minimum certainly not universally observed.
No dumbing down
The “everyday-drinking” level here is met and exceeded by the Winery of Good Hope Bush Vine Chenin Blanc, as good a mouthful of wine as it is of words. No dumbing down here: it is properly dry with fresh brightness integrated into a round, well-fruited, light richness. You would be lucky to find as good and characterful a white wine as this for about R49.
Next step up, half as much again in rand terms, is Vinum Chenin Blanc. The showiest of the wines, perhaps, it gently flaunts evidence of the oak barrels in which it was matured, with added spicy complexity and depth to the ripe fruit, as well as a broader, smoother texture.
Genuine seriousness starts with the Land of Hope range (there is also a good cabernet), which benefits a trust primarily dedicated to the education of employees’ children. It was recognised by the Financial Mail as the best sustainable black economic empowerment deal of 2008. Behind the attractive label (featuring what is presumably a “tree of knowledge”) is an equally appealing chenin blanc, beautifully balanced and harmonious, subtly oaked, fine and quietly assertive, with genuine personality.
Like the others reviewed, it has a modest alcohol level at little more than 13% and like them all it is safely under screw cap and not cork.
These qualities are further refined in the lovely Renaissance Chenin Blanc in the winery’s top range, Radford Dale. With a pebbly, stony quality, there is an element of austere but not intimidating restraint containing the rich fruit from a single Helderberg vineyard. The two top wines are R140 and R175, respectively, and worth the money. Fulfilling hope never was cheap.